35 Design Terms Explained for the Non-Designer

From kerning to hierarchy and tracking, understanding design terms is like learning a new language. Unfortunately, Google Translate can’t quite help you with this one. But never fear, we’re here to help you figure it all out.

Before we start, who do we mean by non-designers?

You guessed it, this can literally be anyone. For instance, a client who doesn’t know their Serifs from their Sans-Serifs. Or even a design newbie with vacant eyes trying to grasp the semantics of this visual world.

Wacom’s at the ready (we’ll get to that later)! Take a seat, grab a snack and discover the meanings behind these 35 technical design terms.

Colour in the World of Design


The Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key (CMYK) colour model is used for printed design. Key is a fancy word for black, but is mainly used because the colours CMY are keyed (aligned) in with the key of the black plate.

2. RGB The Red, Green, Blue colour model is used for digital or web purposes. RGB is additive, meaning we start with black and end up with white after colours are added.

3. Opacity How opaque a photo, graphic or colour is. Adjusting the opacity changes how much light is allowed to pass through the object.

4. Gradient The gradual blending of colours from one tone to another. Namely, the use of linear or radial gradients. Linear gradients have colours sitting at either edge of an object. Whereas, radial gradients have one colour sitting in the middle and one on the edge of an object.

5. Hex colour codes Prepare for its longer name: hexadecimal colour codes *yikes*. This is a 6-digit code that’s attributed to a colour swatch. In particular, these codes ensure you’re using the exact colour you want every time. It becomes critical when using specific brand colours. Imagine using the wrong Coca Cola red in a piece of branded content. No thanks.

6. Pantone (PMS)

A standard system of colours for printing. For convenience, Pantone shades are numbered, making them simple to reference and to find exact colours.

All the Pictures, Photos and Images

7. Resolution This refers to the detail in an image. In broad terms, the higher the resolution the better quality the image is. If an image has a low resolution, it’s usually blurry or pixelated.

8. Stock photos Professional photography available for personal and commercial licensing. Primarily, stock photos are used for branding collateral, website design, social media etc. That means no using images from Google - avoid copyright infringement folks!

9. Mock-up A mock-up is a realistic visualisation of a final design. For example, a website prototype can be mocked up on a computer desktop to help visualise the final outcome.

10. DPI or PPI With reference to resolution, DPI and PPI are dots per inch or pixels per inch. The more pixels, the higher quality an image tends to be. For print, images should be at least 300dpi. Whereas, images for the web can be as low as 72dpi.

11. Mood board

A visualisation board forming a holistic view of inspiration behind a logo, website design, project etc. Most mood boards combine colour swatches, imagery, textures, patterns, typography and more.

Design Terms in Typography

12. Hierarchy All hail hierarchy! Text elements in a composition are ranked by importance. This is typically done so that the viewer is properly guided in the right direction. For instance, ensuring important information like headings are larger or made bold to indicate they should be read first.

13. Kerning Now this one always gets people. Kerning refers to the spacing between two characters in your type - keep in mind that’s individual letters. Typography that isn’t kerned properly can appear disproportional. Balance is everything!

14. Tracking It’s going to get confusing here. Tracking ALSO refers to the spacing between letters, much like kerning. But, instead of adjusting individual letters, the spacing between every letter is affected at the same time.

If a designer mentions they want to “tighten up their tracking” they wish to bring all the letters of a block of type closer together.

15. Leading This one’s pronounced like “ledding”, not “leading”. It concerns the space between lines of text in a paragraph. Think lines, think leading.

16. Alignment “Is that copy aligned properly?” - something all designers have heard before. Alignment has to do with the way elements in a design are lined up in relation to each other or part of a page.

Often you’ll hear designers talking about left-align, right-align, center-align etc.

17. Lorem Ipsum Yes, this is that interesting collection of words designers use as ‘dummy text’ in designs. More commonly, it’s referred to as ‘placeholder text’. Interestingly, Lorem Ipsum has been used in publishing and graphic design since the 1500s!

18. Serif typeface A font with small strokes attached to the end of a letter’s stem. Times New Roman, Garamond, Didot and Bodoni are classic examples of serif fonts.

19. Sans-serif typeface Considered a more modern style of font, sans-serifs contain no strokes on letters. Some describe sans-serifs as cleaner than serif fonts. Some of our favourites include Montserrat, Open Sans, Proxima Nova and Lato.

20. Widows In typesetting, a widow is a very short line, typically one word at the end of a paragraph or column. It’s separated from the rest of the paragraph and is considered poor typography.

21. Orphans On the other hand, an orphan is a short line, part of a word or singular word that appears at the beginning of a column or page. As a result, the horizontal alignment at the top of your column or page is all off - not a good look.

22. Body copy

This is the main meal, the main part of the text in your design or editorial. Body copy can also refer to website content, book content or blog content - the stuff you’re reading right now!

Print, Layouts and Illustrations

23. Vector graphic Vector graphics are computer-generated images composed of paths rather than pixels. Mathematical statements place lines and shapes in a given two or three-dimensional space.

24. Wacom drawing tablet Told you we’d get to it! A Wacom is a brand of digital drawing tablet commonly used by designers and illustrators. Instead of using a mouse and trackpad, graphics tablets allow users to hand-draw images with a stylus connected to your computer or laptop.

25. Bleed There’s nothing gruesome about it. Bleed simply refers to a design that extends past its printed edge. In other words, the design does not have a white border around it after trimming. You’ll see this on many printed designs including editorials, business cards and brochures.

26. Trim This is the final size of a printed design after the bleed has been trimmed off.

27. Crop marks How do you know where to trim a printed design? Crop marks on the edges of your design indicate where it should be cut once printed.

28. Padding Padding is the space between an image or element and its outside border. If you hear someone say “increase the padding”, then they need the element in question to not be so close to the border or to another element.

29. Grid A framework made up of a series of columns and rows. It is most commonly used to structure content and organise layouts. Grids can be used for app designs or web designs. Alternatively, for printed works such as books, magazines or posters.

30. White space A touchy subject for designers, white space or ‘negative space’ refers to the areas of a design absent from content. Whilst it does not involve content this doesn’t mean it’s not important.

White space is critical for breathability and balance. Without it, designs can come across as cluttered and unappealing.

So, before you ask a designer to reduce the white space, think about why it was placed there to begin with.

31. Margins

The space separating the edge of a page and the elements within it. Different margin sizes can induce a different look and feel. For example, larger or open margins provide more white space, making the overall design feel a lot calmer.

The Big ‘B’ Word: Branding

32. Brand One that’s difficult to pinpoint, a brand is essentially a collection of values, ideas, emotions and concepts that encapsulate a company.

Most importantly, a brand is NOT a logo. Say it with me: A. BRAND. IS. NOT. A. LOGO.

From the way employees write emails to social media content and values upheld, the combination of all of this is what makes a brand.

33. Brand identity The visualisation of your brand. Namely, the visualisation of your values, mission, personality and ethos. Your brand identity includes your logo, business cards, packaging design, letterheads, email signatures etc.

34. Logotype A logotype is a logo that uses your company name, designed in a visual way. Good examples of this are Coca Cola, FedEx, Disney and Nasa.

35. Brand mark A logo design where a symbol or emblem is used instead of the company name. Commonly, brand marks are combined with logotypes for the final logo design, but not always. Examples of famous brand marks include the Nike swoosh, Apple’s apple, Lacoste’s crocodile and the McDonalds ‘M’.

Now, that’s a lot to take in. But, you’re more prepared than ever before for a design term encounter. Designer or not, these terms set you in good stead for a better understanding of the creative realm.

Need graphic design work or branding done? Be sure to get in touch with us by visiting and we’ll make it happen!

Kind regards,

The JA. Team

Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

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